Weight Lifting Can Kill You — Shall I Email the News to My Weight-Lifting Son?

Weight lifting. My son Peter Newhall, a young man in his 30s, bench presses at a gym. Photo by Barbara Newhall

Bench pressing — with a spotter. Photo by Barbara Newhall

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

Oh, my gosh. Weight lifting can kill you. I didn’t know that. Well, yes, of course, I knew that a bar loaded with 180 pounds of weight dropped on your neck during a bench press will finish you off pronto. What I didn’t know was that death by dead lift can sneak up on you weeks later, long after you’ve put the weights back on the squat rack.

Why do I care? Because my son lifts weights. Big ones. Weights with pounds in the triple digits. When he and his wife shopped for their first house last year, a basement with a ceiling high enough to accommodate a power rack was at the top of Peter’s list of gotta-haves.

weight lifting. My son Peter Newhall dead lifts 135 pounds at the gym. Photo by Barbara Newhall

Dead lift. Photo by Barbara Newhall

My son’s weight lifting passion has scared me for years now; it’s nothing new. I can’t help thinking as I watch Peter lift 180 pounds off the rack and up, up, up, right over his sweet (and, yes, totally grown-up) face — I can’t help thinking, yipes, what if he drops it?

So far I’ve be able to keep my lips buttoned when it comes to the weight lifting. I take photos of my 34-year-old son pressing and lifting and squatting. Dutifully, I utter words of admiration. Prudently, I keep my fears to myself. So far I’ve been a paragon of modern parenting restraint.

Until, that is, last Sunday, when I learned something new and scary about weight-lifting. Something that Peter’s chums and weight-lifting coaches probably haven’t told him about.

And that is — you can pop a carotid lifting weights. Yes, the strain of lifting a big weight can damage a carotid artery, and you won’t even know it. And there you are, a few days or weeks later, riding off in an ambulance, dead of a stroke.

It’s true. Says so right there in the August 16 New York Times Magazine. Page 18. The weekly Diagnosis column. The headline reads, “One pupil was smaller than the other. Was that reason enough to go to the E.R.?”

Yes, it was. The patient in question had some mysterious symptoms, an ear ache and one pupil bigger than the other. The urgent care docs prescribed antibiotics for the ear, but when the symptoms recurred, an astute optometrist sent him off to a neuro-ophthalmologist, who concluded that the otherwise healthy young man — he was in his late 30s, he worked out and he lifted weights — had Horner’s syndrome.

Horner’s syndrome is an injury to the nerve controlling parts of the eye and facial skin. It can be caused by a lot of things. One of them is damage to the carotid artery, which is located next to the nerve.

Trauma from events like lifting weights can cause small tears in the carotid artery walls, writes Lisa Sanders, M.D., in the NYT Magazine. Blood pumped from the heart can press on the

weight lifting. My son Peter Newhall, a man in his 30s, lifts dumbbells at the gym. Photo by Barbara Newhall

Incline benching 60-pound dumbbells. Photo by Barbara Newhall

arterial wall and cause a dissection in the artery’s muscles. Blood collects and distends the artery wall, pressing on the nerve. It also sets an otherwise healthy young individual up for a stroke.

A stroke.

Peter doesn’t have Horner’s syndrome. Not yet anyway. So it’s not too late to warn him. Should I tell him about it?  Or should I keep my motherly concerns to myself? What do you think?

Never mind. That was a rhetorical question. As soon as I read that NYT story, my mind was made up. I shot an email off to Peter with a link to the NYT website.

(Here it is, just in case you’ve got a kid who lifts weights and you’re a worrier:  http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/08/07/think-like-a-doctor-a-knife-in-the-ear-solved/ )

Peter might well shoot me back with an irritated, “quit worrying, Mom. I can take care of myself” email. In which case, I’ll be mortified that I’ve fallen into my old hover-mother ways. I’ll beat myself up for a few minutes. But then I’ll stop.

Because, annoyed as my son might be with me, at least he won’t be dead.

If you liked this story, you might like “How the Selective Service Made a Man of My Son — Without Even Trying.”  Also,  “How to Play With a Barbie Doll.”  You can also find my posts on Patheos.com and HuffingtonPost.com

Weight lifing. Dumbbells of various sizes on a rack in a gym. Photo by Barbara Newhall



  1. Jean MacGillis says:

    Very interesting! Some people probably lift heavier weights too soon.

  2. Sharie McNamee says:

    Thanks. am going to tell my daugher about this.

  3. Liz Nystrom says:

    Thank you, and include his wife in your email.


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